Zach Stovall  /  Caribbean Travel & Life
By
updated 4/6/2006 6:57:03 PM ET 2006-04-06T22:57:03

Without so much as the need to apply for passports, families can hop on any of dozens of daily nonstop flights and head to Puerto Rico for their family getaways. And what an escape this destination is. Despite its all-American currency, phone service and travel ease, this geographically diverse outpost so close to our mainland offers savory tastes of the exotic -- plus countless miles of absolutely beautiful beaches abutting the warm clear sea. Puerto Rico invites you to explore beyond the shore.

Waterfalls thunder down hills at the end of jungle trails so tame a 4-year-old can hike them. Some beaches have water calm enough for toddler play, and others boast surf wild enough to keep any teen with a surfboard happy. Dad and bro can golf, Mom and sis can spend days at the spa. Forts once used to fend off pirates now stand proudly near cafés offering mango-filled pastries with a stiff café con leche. It's hard to imagine a locale with more for American families, no matter the age of the children or the interests of the parents.

Families Welcome Here

Let's begin with the Latin warmth that greets visiting families. Puerto Ricans by culture adore children, and they welcome kids throughout their island. You'll find highchairs in posh restaurants. You'll see inflatable tubes in use at resort swimming pools. You'll spot Pampers in grocery stores.

Best of all, Puerto Rico is easy to reach and traverse. As San Juan is a hub for U.S. flights to the Caribbean, it receives dozens of flights daily from mainland cities. Airports in Ponce and Aguadilla welcome visitors to other parts of this diverse destination.

The airports stock plenty of rental cars, and the rules of the road are the same as they are back home, so exploring together is easy and affordable. Avis offers a full menu of rental vehicles for American travelers eager to explore, and the process is simple and friendly. Want a Jeep for off-road exploring? A minivan large enough for the children and the luggage? Simply call 800-331-1212 or visit avis.com. Budget alone has seven rental offices in Puerto Rico, from the generously stocked lot at San Juan's airport to smaller offices in locales such as Yauco. Whether you're looking for an economy car or a luxury vehicle, Budget stocks what you want. To learn more, call 800-472-3325 or visit budget.com.

And then there are the hotels. Oh, the hotels! No matter the budget or interests, families can find just the right place to stay. Major resorts have multiple restaurants, casinos, water parks, beachfront lounge chairs, kid camps and teen clubs. Other properties boast pools and beach access plus daily activities. Eco-oriented families can stay in remote areas. Boutique hotels welcome families looking for intimacy.

Hotels go out of their way to welcome families. At the Westin Rio Mar Beach Golf Resort & Spa, for instance, children often can stay for free. Indeed, this 600-room, opulence-oriented resort offers a Kids for Free package that enables two children ages 4 to 12 per family to lodge and eat for free; they also get to participate in Westin Kids Club and receive 25 percent off golf and spa activities. After bicycling, kayaking and playing in the game room, families often find themselves participating in the activities held frequently at one of the resort's two pools.

Touring Pirate Perches

Although Puerto Rico's resorts offer so many activities that it's hard to leave, enchanting Puerto Rico offers even more fascinating ways to spend the day.

Zach Stovall/Caribbean Travel & Life

For a bit of history, spend a day in Old San Juan, a walled section of the capital known for its cobblestone streets and lovingly restored centuries-old buildings. At El Morro, a 200-year-old fort, children can reenact Colonial history. Cannons, secret passageways and 60-foot walls bring history to life -- although plenty of kids spend their time at the fort flying kites in the breeze from the San Juan Bay. They can buy the kites right there.

To make learning more fun, be sure to make a stop at Plaza de Hostos. Kids can cool off with shaved-ice treats in tropical flavors sold by piragüeros while grown-ups souvenir-shop for crafts.

The Children's Museum, or Museo del Niño, specializes in interactive exhibits that demonstrate, for example, the importance of dental hygiene or pet care. At the Time Out Family Amusement Center, families play high-tech video games. Kids can stretch and climb at the playground in Luis Muñoz Marín Park.

There's no need to travel to this historical wonderland. If you stay in the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel, you'll be steps away from all this and more. In total, 52 restaurants, 12 museums, 33 art galleries and 79 shops are within walking distance -- and the airport is only six miles away. Contemporary rooms, an outdoor pool and parking facilities provide all you'll need for an urban Caribbean family getaway.

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Unexpectedly stylish, the 222-room Holiday Inn San Juan offers contemporary amenities only minutes from Old San Juan. Its free-form pool delights families, and the beach is a cinch to reach. Those planning family reunions or parties can use all or part of the hotel's 15,000 square feet of meeting space. The tour-and-travel staff is quick to help guests book diving trips, cave exploration excursions and more, while the concierges will handle dinner reservations, theater tickets and event reservations. In addition to its proximity to Old San Juan and the beach, the Holiday Inn San Juan is only one mile from the airport.

Have the best of both worlds at the InterContinental San Juan Resort & Casino. Located minutes from Old San Juan on Isla Verde, this AAA 4-Diamond resort is located right on a two-mile stretch of white-sand beach. Deep-sea fishing and snorkeling are ideal for together-time. After a day building sandcastles and swimming in the sprawling lagoon-style pool, children can relax with a babysitter while Mom and Dad play some blackjack and dine in any of six restaurants.

Outings for Everyone

Glowing lakes? Rainforest treks? That's just the beginning. Puerto Rico's day trips will awe even the most jaded 'tween. After-dark boat trips can be had on two glowing lakes. They're really phosphorescent bays: Thousands of microscopic organisms swim around in the water, making it look as if the bays are lit up. The bay at La Paragua and Fajardo is the easiest to reach from most resorts, and the one on Vieques, an out island only recently opened to tourism, is especially spectacular. While families with preschoolers or grandparents along may prefer boat rides, those with older offspring can experience this otherworldly sight while snorkeling or scuba diving or kayaking at night.

Zach Stovall/Caribbean Travel & Life
Who wouldn't be awed by entering a cave? At Río Camuy Cave Park, families can take a trolley through caves and craterlike sinkholes filled with vegetation. The Cathedral Cave even has Native American drawings.

Known as El Yunque, the Caribbean National Forest is the only rainforest in the United States -- and it's family-friendly. Filled with 240 types of trees, this lush destination wows with waterfalls, hiking trails (some of them quite easy) and el coquí, Puerto Rico's adorable, noisy tree frog.

Puerto Rico 's rainforest may be magnificent, but it's not the only national park worth a jaunt. Guánica's Dry Forest is known for its 10,000 acres of wilderness with 600 unusual plants and animals, including 48 endangered species, 16 of them unique to Puerto Rico. How does that compare to your hometown zoo? Campers will enjoy hiking one of five trails in Toro Negro Forest, which boasts Puerto Rico's highest point -- and the spectacular views provided by the peak. Hand out binoculars for an expedition to the Culebra Wildlife Refuge, home to 120 seabird nesting colonies. While visiting Piñones Natural Reserve, view the stunning mangroves and then snorkel to spot up to 36 types of fish.

Athletic Endeavors

Speaking of snorkeling: Puerto Rico's Caribbean and Atlantic shores provide access to wonderful underwater views. The water is generally 81°F and visibility is at least 60 feet near shore, 100 feet further out. The shallow reefs near San Juan, Mayagüez, Dorado and Humacao draw snorkel fans, while divers often make a beeline to Desecheo Island. Aguadilla and Isabela are known for especially good shore dives.

Frolicking with seahorses and octopi is only the beginning of Puerto Rico's athletic opportunities. The island boasts an impressive 24 golf courses, and instructors are easy to find. Tennis courts grace nearly every major resort, and San Juan's Central Park has 17 public courts.

You can do quite a bit right on property during a stay at the Embassy Suites Hotel Dorado del Mar Beach & Golf Resort. The 174-suite beachfront resort features a Chi Chi Rodriguez-designed 18-hole par-72 golf course with ocean and mountain views. Off the greens, families can play tennis, splash in an outdoor lagoon pool, work out in a fitness center and dine in two restaurants. A dining room for four is in each suite, and refrigerators and microwave ovens make in-room meals and snacks a snap.

Zach Stovall/Caribbean Travel & Life
The Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort & Country Club is another golf mecca. No fewer than four golf courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. have hosted tournaments and welcome families. Professional instruction is available. Those not into golf can spend the day paddle-boating, sailing on catamarans, going snorkeling, learning windsurfing, swimming or getting spa treatments. Camp Hyatt Dorado Beach invites kids to make crafts and discover seashells, or maybe participate in a tropical scavenger hunt amid the remains of a turn-of-the-century grapefruit plantation.

Horseback riding along the shore with gentle trade winds blowing -- equestrian options don't get better than that. Often using Paso Fino horses, one of the world's finest riding horses, outings can involve trotting through a country town or around a mountain.

Deep-sea fishing is big sport here, especially for billfish. Blue Marlin Alley, on Puerto Rico's north side, draws serious fisherfolk. Charters also take visitors for marlin, mahimahi, dolphin, wahoo and yellowfin tuna.

Zach Stovall/Caribbean Travel & Life
Families flock to the ice-skating rink in Aguadilla. Imagine spending the day on the beach, then leaving for a pre-dinner twirl on the ice. Paradise? Oh, yes.

Families needn't leave the grounds of the Copamarina Beach Resort to stay busy all day. This family-oriented resort on its own 20-acre property is filled with activities for kids of all ages. In addition to a three-quarter-mile stretch of sandy white beach, water play can be found at two regular and two kiddie pools. A playground keeps little ones entertained for hours, and in-room fridges keep beverages cold. Older kids can go out on kayaks, paddleboats or Hobie Cats. They can challenge Mom and Dad to volleyball or jog around the property with them. Tennis. Diving. Snorkeling. Why leave? Copamarina makes family vacations affordable; kids 12 and under stay free. All-inclusive packages for kids cost only $50 or $95 per night (kids under 3 stay for free), and meals, beverages and nonmotorized water sports are part of the deal.

Un Poquito of Everything

So packed are Puerto Rico's hotels with activities and amenities families enjoy, and so close are most of them to attractions ideal for the under-18 set, you can hardly go wrong. Ponce, Puerto Rico's second-largest city, offers a wealth of family-friendly activities. The Old Ponce Firehouse and Museum, Parque de Bombas, is a little kid's delight. Housed in a wooden circa-1882 structure built for an exposition, it's painted in vibrant red and black stripes.

Ventures into Ponce, the City of Museums, are a breeze from the Holiday Inn Ponce Hotel & Tropical Casino, whose panoramic mountaintop view and 24-hour casino help parents unwind. While both an Olympic-size pool and a kiddie pool delight families for hours, attractions near the contemporary and air-conditioned property offer added entertainment. The Speed and Splash Water and Racing Theme Park is a quick mile away, and within six miles or less you'll find the Serralles Castle Museum and the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Park, both kid favorites. The Costa Caribe Golf Course is a mere seven-mile drive away.

Located only minutes from Ponce's business district, the Howard Johnson Ponce is a welcoming 120-room, two-level hotel with all the basics a family needs. With its Spanish architecture and fully modern amenities, the Howard Johnson caters to families. In addition to air conditioning and TVs with HBO, each room provides comfort in the form of hairdryers, ironing boards, data ports, coffeemakers and, to begin the day in Ponce style, a complimentary supply of mountain-grown Puerto Rican coffee. The Weekends Grill & Bar has a wide variety of food and beverage offerings.

Located near Mayagüez in Porta del Sol, with its elegant plaza, the Holiday Inn Mayagüez and Tropical Casino keeps kids busy on the premises, and it's located near several youth-oriented attractions. On the beautifully appointed property with a plush resort atmosphere, children can spend their days in a tropical blue kiddie pool -- located near the adults' oversized free-form swimming pool -- and play the newest video games in a game room. Hop in the car to visit the Mayagüez Zoo, Kids Dream Castle, Las Cascadas water park or a bowling alley, all from three to 10 miles away. Boquerón, a destination-worthy village, beach and bay, is also in the area.

Remarkable Rincón

Family resorts and activities can be found throughout the glorious island of Puerto Rico, but Rincón's collection in Porta del Sol is especially impressive.

Slideshow: Caribbean way of life Those interested in scuba diving should consider Taino Divers, a Rincón operation at the tip of the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve. Specializing in scuba instruction, Taino Divers hosts daily trips to nearby Desecheo Island for snorkeling and scuba diving.The 12 passengers on each trip receive a gourmet lunch, soft drinks, spring water and snorkel gear to use. Other excursions feature sunsets and whale-watching, fishing and blue-water hunting. Custom cruises are also available.

Offering elegance in a family-friendly atmosphere, Rincón Beach Resort is filled with amenities. Located between Aguadilla and Mayagüez, the intimate four-star beachfront property is minutes from the island's best surfing site. Between surfing, windsurfing and wave sailing, parents will have to beg their teenagers to return to the resort to dine with them. Located near a zoo and only half an hour from the Arecibo Observatory -- which houses the world's largest telescope -- Rincón Beach Resort is close to attractions for every member of the family. Onsite you'll find sailing and kayaking from the hotel's beach, a lovely pool with swim-up bar, restaurants, an oversized chess set and, of course, an indulgent strip of beach.

The Lazy Parrot bills itself as a mini-resort, and that's exactly what this bright pink accommodation is. Sitting atop La Cadena Hills, this cheerful country inn offers air-conditioned rooms, proximity to the beach and Smiling Joe's Restaurant. Families who enjoy beach, snorkeling and diving make this their home base.

A warm welcome greets you at the Casa Isleña Inn, a former oceanfront home that's been turned into an "island house" with a Spanish accent. Each of the nine air-conditioned rooms has a TV, and the inn's beach is seductive. Sitting around the oceanfront pool, winter guests can see humpback whales migrating through Aguadilla Bay and Mona Passage.

Right on the beach, Villa Confresí Hotel & Restaurant lures families with attractive yet moderately priced facilities. Pool tables and video games entertain everyone, while older children and their parents can sign on for snorkeling, diving, kayaking, banana-boat riding and fishing. You may even spot whales swimming by from your perch on the terrace.

If your vacation involves just you and your significant other, look for luxury -- in the form of antiques, exotic woods and marble baths -- define the Horned Dorset Primavera. Often called Puerto Rico's best-kept secret, this award-winning property, known very much for its splendidly serene environment, recently added 22 indulgently appointed guest rooms to its existing 33. Visitors enjoying the inn's pampering often spoil themselves silly by dining in the property's new Blue Room, a beautiful restaurant featuring over-the-top meals by chef Aaron Wratten. Snuggled into the hills, the seven-acre hotel features three pools and a secluded beach.

Zach Stovall/Caribbean Travel & Life
The new Pineapple Inn appeals to family with its low-key style. Located on Corcega Beach, the Pineapple Inn delights with a private garden and a swimming pool. With air-conditioned rooms, satellite TV, refrigerators and private bathrooms in all rooms, the Pineapple Inn is a good place to stay for families who want to explore the Rincón area then return to a relaxing environment.

Suite Success

"Where Luxury Meets Privacy" may sound like the tagline of an adults-only delight, but at the Paradisus Puerto Rico, that promise extends to families, too. Nestled into the Miquillo de Río Grande Peninsula on the island's northeastern coast, Paradisus is Puerto Rico's first and only all-suite, all-inclusive resort -- meaning families have plenty of space to spread out, and they'll know in advance what their vacations will cost. For one set price Paradisus guests get to stay in one of 20 two-story bungalows. Children will spend their days participating in family-oriented activities while parents steal away to the spa, fitness center and amphitheater. Kiddie and adult pools, tennis, two 18-hole golf courses, dance classes, a casino and water sports are more options, many of which are included in the price of a stay.

Puerto Rico Vacation Resources
Puerto Rico Paradores: www.GoToParadores.com
Porta del Sol Puerto Rico: www.GoToPortaDelSol.com
Rincon Tourism: www.rincon.org

Can it be this easy to have a tropical yet comfortable family vacation? You bet. Puerto Rico's diverse and plentiful wonders make it easy and enticing to explore beyond the shore.

DINING

AGUA VIVA RESTAURANT
Hip and refreshing atmosphere, designed to feel as if you were dining next to the sea with its glowing blue and white décor.

787-722-0665
364 Fortaleza Street
Old San Juan

THE CARIBBEAN GRILL, THE RITZ CARLTON
All day dining indoors or al fresco overlooking the pool and gardens. Regional vegetables, fruits and spice give this cuisine its distinctive yet light taste. Caribbean market buffets offered during breakfast, brunch and lunch. An a la carte menu is also offered. Dinner selections include homemade pasta, fresh seafood, beef and game.

787-253-1700
6961 Ave of the Governor's
Isla Verde

AMADEUS CAFÉ
Caribbean ingredients with a nouvelle cuisine twist. Typical Old San Juan ambiance, cosmopolitan, with Caribbean lifestyle influence.

787-722-8635
106 Sebastian Street
Old San Juan

BRASAS RESTAURANT, RINCON BEACH RESORT
A unique Caribbean contemporary Grill, located at the beautiful Añasco beach on the West coast of Puerto Rico.

787-589-9000
Carr #115 Km 5.8
Añasco

LA CASONA
Ideal place for an exquisite dinner in a very intimate and welcoming atmosphere.

787-727-2717
609 San Jorge St.
Santurce

DRAGON FLY
Freshest seafood combined with the vibrant flavors of the Tropics.

787-977-3886
364 Fortaleza Street
Old San Juan

FANTASIA RESTAURANT, HOLIDAY INN
Exquisite California-Caribbean cuisine at affordable prices.

787-253-9000
Isla Verde

FOGATA, SHERATON HOTEL
Fogata has a warm, urban-tropical feel, with sizzling colors creating an indoor waterfront dining area.

787-289-1944
364 Fortaleza Street
Old San Juan

THE PARROT CLUB
Is designed with Island colors and an open kitchen. Reflects a warm and Latin-Caribbean feeling.

787-725-7370
363 Fortaleza Street
Old San Juan

PITO'S SEAFOOD CAFÉ & RESTAURANT
Located by the seashore on the southern coast of Puerto Rico. The menu includes fresh seafood, meats and poultry.

787-841-4977
Carr #2
Ponce

SHOPPING

PLAZA LAS AMERICAS, INC.
Plaza las Americas has more than 300 stores, including specialty shops and boutiques, 21 movie screens, more than 40 restaurants, banks, post office, and medical and dental offices.

787-767-5202
Conveniently located in Las Americas Expressway, Roosevelt Avenue Exit
San Juan

CAR RENTAL

HERTZ
The largest car rental company in the world with approximately 21 convenient locations throughout Puerto Rico. Hertz offers a wide variety of current-model cars for daily, weekly or monthly rentals. For reservations call your travel agent or Hertz at 1-800-654-3030 or visit www.hertz.com.

Caribbean Travel & Life is the magazine for anyone in search of the perfect tropical getaway. Each issue presents expert insider’s advice on where to find the Caribbean’s best beaches and attractions, its finest resorts and spas, liveliest beach bars and activities, and its friendliest people.

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